Naperville was no one-horse town when it came to buying and selling horseflesh in the late 1800s – Chicago Tribune

Every week we publish a historic photo highlighting a story from Naperville’s past from the history archives of Naper Settlement.

If you were in the market for a horse, there was no better place to buy one than downtown Naperville in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Monthly horse sales were held outside the Pre-Emption House on the first Saturday of each month from 1885 to 1905. According to event announcements, all horse sales were private, sellers bore no expense in a sale and there was no bidding or auctions, just simple sales.

It made sense to hold the sales outside the Pre-Emption House, which was a lively center of activity in downtown Naperville.

Tribune Archive photo / Chicago Tribune

A plaque commemorates the original Pre-Emption House, which stood at 37 W. Chicago Ave. and was demolished in 1946. A re-creation of the house is now at Naper Settlement. (Chicago Tribune file photo)

Built by George Laird in 1834, the 19-room hotel with a tavern was located at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Main Street, where Sullivan’s Steakhouse is now located.

The first horse market sale was on May 2, 1885. Twenty-five buyers arrived on the morning train from Chicago, and the event drew people from around DuPage, Kane and Will counties.

According to a story in the Naperville Clarion newspaper, the sale featured “horses of all grades, weights, kinds and colors.”

“Draught horses, magnificent Norman specimens, fancy teams, stepping in perfect time, single carriage horses, and animals of evers (sic) description were here and every available horse found a ready buyer at a good price,” the story said.

The cheapest sold for $17.50. The most expensive was a bay mare that went for $275. In total, nearly $9,000 was spent on 76 horses that day. (The equivalent of $287,931 today, according to

Over the years, the monthly horse market became a part of Naperville life both economically and socially. The Pre-Emption House even had a stable on site.

A newspaper article published on July 7, 1886, said the “monthly meeting of buyers and sellers is now looked forward to as an important day, and is growing more and more interesting and important to both parties.”

By the 1890s, the entire Pre-Emption House block was dedicated to horses, with Beckman’s Harness Shop, Miller’s Wagon Shop and Skelton’s Blacksmith Shop taking up residency.

Interestingly, as the city shifted to cars in the early 20th century, so did the block. Garages, gas stations and car dealerships replaced the 19th century horse-based businesses.

While the Pre-Emption House played a big role in downtown Naperville, ownership was fluid. There were 14 documented proprietors of the business between 1834 and 1946.

The Pre-Emption House was primarily male dominated. Women and children were allowed inside but only if they came in through the ladies’ entrance.

The first election for officers in the newly formed DuPage County was held there in 1839.

In 1841, the Pre-Emption Law allowed people settled on land to purchase it from the federal government for $1.25 an acre. Sales were limited to 160 acres each.

Gertrude and Frank Wehrli used the Pre-Emption House as their family home from 1927 to 1946. Gertrude was the daughter of a previous proprietor, Sam Hiltenbrand.

Its long long run ended in 1946, when it was demolished to make room for a car dealership.

"Horse Market Days," a sculpture commissioned by Naperville Century Walk, sits outside Naper Settlement in homage to the city's days as a horse market town. (Naperville Century Walk)
“Horse Market Days,” a sculpture commissioned by Naperville Century Walk, sits outside Naper Settlement in homage to the city’s days as a horse market town. (Naperville Century Walk)

Later, a recreation of the Pre-Emption House would be built on the Naper Settlement campus, funded by the Naperville Heritage Society. Blueprints completed during the 1930s as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey were used to build the new structure.

In 2001, Naperville Centrury Walk commissioned a bronze sculpture of a horse, boy and dog — known as “Horse Market Days” — to be installed at Naper Settlement in homage to Naperville’s earlier days as a horse town.

Steve Metsch is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun. Andrea Field is the curator of history at Naper Settlement. For more information, go to

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